Cooper Hewitt’s Pen

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This past June the Cooper Hewitt museum announced their plans for the opening of the renovated and restored Carnegie Mansion and the exhibitions that will inaugurate the revamped and expanded gallery spaces. Some of the new exhibitions will use an interactive pen that visitors can use to “draw, design, and explore” the content. (See this Wired article for more info.)

At the museum’s announcement event I had the pleasure of meeting Jordan Husney, of Undercurrent – one of the firms that was instrumental in the  design and implementation of the pen. He recently took some time to talk about his work, and the project for the Cooper Hewitt…

Q: Can you talk a bit about your background. How did you get involved with interactive technologies?

In 1993, my father encouraged me to join the Amateur Radio Club at my middle school in my native Minnesota. Radio opened the door to a much broader world for me. In one way or another, I suppose I’ve been connecting people and things via technology ever since.

In 1996, I worked  at Digi International, a telecommunications equipment maker.  I helped create dozens of things such as an interactive and automated commercial smart kitchen for a quick-serve restaurant chain (now with thousands of deployments!)  I became deeply involved in folks building commercial and residential energy management systems, including a startup called Grounded Power which was later acquired by Tendril.

Grounded Power was founded by some very smart people, a few of whom came from NYU’s ITP program. I met Rob Faludi and we hit it off. He taught me a lot about ethnography and user-centered design. I helped edit his wonderful book Building Wireless Sensor Networks and we even worked a couple of design & technology projects together. One of our more fun – and challenging – collaborations was working on Connecting Light, a nearly 80-mile long interactive sculpture along Hadrian’s Wall created by YesYesNo for the Summer Olympic Games.

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Q:  So, the Cooper Hewitt was in the midst of a massive redesign. How did this project start within that process. What was the origin of the idea?

By 2014, I had joined Undercurrent, an organizational development and transformation consultancy. The museum had reached out to Undercurrent to help bring the pen to life. Our founder and CEO, Aaron Dignan is a member of the Cooper Hewitt Museum’s Museum’s Marketing & Media Taskforce and asked me to meet with Seb Chan and Aaron Straup Cope who are responsible for bringing much of the new interactive museum experience to life. Jake Barton and Local Projects had conceived of this wonderful experience where a pen – or similar form – would be carried by museum guests and used to record objects of interest and interact with other exhibits and activities.

There was only one problem: the Cooper Hewitt had never brought such an object to life before.

The museum needed to form and partner with a team who could take the brilliant idea for the pen and turn it into reality. To accelerate the timeline, my first task was to look out into the landscape and see if there were any vendors who had a partial solution. One the museum’s partners, AV&C, suggested Sistel Networks in Valencia, Spain and I took a trip to evaluate their technology and team.

Sistel had created a rather robust interactive pen for use in the medical field. Undercurrent and the Cooper Hewitt then tested it and determined that it would make a wonderful starting point for our design. I then set to work requesting a number of technical changes of them. They’re great engineers and were able to turn around prototypes with blinding speed.

It was also important to create an aesthetic and ergonomic experience in the pen that would be worthy of a national design museum. Luckily, we had a bountiful resource at our disposal. Beth Comstock, CMO of General Electric, is the president of Cooper Hewitt’s Board of Trustees. She’s also been a great client ours at Undercurrent for several years. She provided world-class industrial and interaction design resources from New York, GE Appliances in Louisville, and the Software Center of Excellence in San Ramon: Andrew Crow, Jennifer Bove, Paul Haney, Elliot Koehler, David Bingham, and so many more.

But designing the pen – it’s electronics, form, and experience, is roughly only half of the effort. Much of the challenge is iterating upon these designs so it can be reliably manufactured in thousands of units. From participating as a mentor in R/GA’s Internet of Things Accelerator I was introduced to Alan Hyman and Allen Hsieh at Makesimply. True to their namesake, they and their virtuosic design resource Matt Sommerfeld have helped to make this often arduous and time-consuming process simple.

No matter how talented the contributors, there is a lot additional complexity introduced by having such a distributed team. We were able to lend Undercurrent’s agile project management practice to keep things on the rails. We also used GrabCAD Workbench to share designs and feedback, which were graciously donated pro bono by GrabCAD for this project.

Q: Did the concept change much from the original idea? What were the reasons for those changes?

Along the way there has been a lot of testing and a lot of iteration. We’ve tried to consider as much as we can: the materials are hygienic and washable for use by multiple guests, surfaces have affordances to suggest how they should be gripped or used, lights and vibration patterns have been designed to give differing sets of feedback for guests and museum staff.

Q: What are the big features of the pen? What are the activities/uses that will be there when the museum opens in December?

I can’t give everything all away now! Caroline Baumann, the museum director, and her staff would like the full experience to be revealed when the museum opens in December, 2014. What I can tell you, however, is there are two primary uses of the pen: collecting objects and creating designs. The collect end of the pen uses NFC technology to read objects all over the museum. The create end has been designed to work with many of the interactive exhibits which are new for the re-opening of the museum.

Q: How do you think its use, by the museum, may evolve over time? Do you have plans for new uses? New interactives? How might it work with future exhibitions?

From the start, we’ve considered the pen as an extensible platform. The pen’s software is upgradeable. We’re thinking of how it can facilitate additional experiences like special tours, scavenger hunts, etc.

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Q: What do you think worked best about the design process? And, Is there anything wish had been done differently?  (Are there any features that you regret didn’t make it into the finished product?)

Creating a piece of hardware is difficult. At some point, you’ve got to pin everything down and wait for version 2. The museum team did a excellent job prototyping, testing, and iterating on the front-end of the design process with their partner Tellart. The more design elements you can lock down with real user testing data the better. Next, the team did a great job integrating the dialog between the form of the pen and its functional requirements. It’s easy to get hung up there. This team was great at keeping ideas moving.

It’s hard to say what we would have changed now. There are always elements you wish you would have had more time to consider.

Q: What’s next?

All of us are eagerly awaiting how the pen is received by the public. It’s our hope that an object like the pen can subtly and quietly change the museum experience from one that is spent looking through the back of a phone to one that has you interacting with more of what’s available around you. There are all sorts of interesting possibilities which open up once the walls of the museum are made more permeable: 3d scanning, 3d printing, and freely available design software create a very exciting future!

As for me, there are plenty of exciting projects going on at Undercurrent. We approach transforming organizations as a design problem. We try to build organizations that continually redesign themselves to get better every day. It’s incredibly fun, challenging work. I’m off to Scotland next week to work with one of our industrial clients.

I’ve got a few side projects to occupy my weekend time. I’ve begun working on a device for restaurants which encourages table conversation to stay at a volume level that allows everyone to share the room comfortably. There is nothing worse than being in an intimate restaurant and have your dining experience ruined by others trying to talk over one another.

Q: Thank you.

Thank you!

More info: Designing the Pen at cooperhewitt.org

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